To Speak of Sahir, Was to Speak of Amrita: The Poet of Unfulfilled Love

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To Speak of Sahir, Was to Speak of Amrita: The Poet of Unfulfilled Love

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope,
against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.
— Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

For a certain caste (and I use that word deliberately) of urban millennial Indians, a fondness for British literature is imbibed in our childhood. We might be fluent in our mother tongues, but when it comes to grappling with an idea or expressing a complex emotion, English is always the language of choice.

Therefore, when I first fell for a girl – a typically heady, disorienting teenage crush that I knew would go nowhere – I turned to the above Dickens quote to give body to my emotion. The quote is a worthy entry in a list of the most beautiful sentences written in English literature; an expression of the idea that the act of loving reaches its zenith when done in defiance of practical strictures placed by society and circumstance, without concern for one’s own destruction, or expectation of reciprocity and fulfilment. In that sense, it is a selfless act. These ideas also come alive in the work of the Urdu poet, Sahir Ludhianvi, who would’ve turned 99 today.

I first heard of Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam in my early teens. My mother told me about them one morning: two gifted artists who were thrown together in a chance meeting at a mushaira, and went on to live a passionate love story enacted mainly through letters. The tale was told quickly, in between my mother combing her hair, issuing instructions to our maid, and placing a chapati on the windowsill for the resident crow. Yet, I never forgot those names. For my mother came alive when recounting their story. A practical woman, she saw marriage as a social arrangement; an opportunity for love to flower, companionship to bloom, and family to thrive, all within society’s rules of engagement. That she was moved by such an unconventional romance, and a failed one at that, hinted that their tale was special. I don’t know what made more of an impression; the image of Amrita pressing her lips to Sahir’s spent cigarette stubs so her lips could touch where his had been, or the sparkle in my mother’s eyes when she recounted the anecdote.

Decade on decade, in film and music, the trope of unfulfilled love has been elevated.

A few years later, I stumbled across Sahir’s work in Pyaasa. His writing was deliciously political and prescient. If “Jinhe naaz hai hind par” acted as a rallying cry for those marginalised by the mainstream, then “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye” cautioned against capitalist excesses. For the next couple of weeks, I read all I could about him and Amrita Pritam. For to speak of Sahir, was to speak of Amrita; despite the eventual lack of fulfillment, or perhaps because of it, they were conjoined. As Sahir wrote:

“Muhabbat jo anjaam tak pahunchi nahin / wahi muhabbat hai, baaqi kuchh nahin (Love that remains unfulfilled is true love / the rest doesn’t matter).”

If this couplet is emblematic of Sahir’s view of love, then Bollywood has done a fine job of carrying on his legacy. Decade on decade, in film and music, the trope of unfulfilled love has been elevated. This is particularly true in Bollywood’s depictions of male characters; from Guru Dutt in Kaagaz ke Phool to Ranbir Kapoor in recent times, the persona of the brooding male has been perfected. The characters these actors portrayed have become iconic for being beholden to love, long after circumstance foiled their attempts, or their love proved one-sided.

The immense appeal that these artistic depictions hold is curious. We continue to aspire to bind marriage with the practical trappings of class, caste and creed. Yet, on screen, men whose love is incandescent regardless of all discouragement hold a special place in the popular imagination. This can be problematic. First, when one’s feelings remain unfulfilled due to a lack of reciprocity, continuing to love displays an alarming lack of respect for another’s agency. Second, one’s own pain is excessively elevated; there is a curious solace in prolonging and justifying one’s melancholia. Love that is devoid of reason and encouragement can start to become more about you and your needs, and less about the object of your affections.

Ultimately, Sahir and Amrita’s love was not grasping, it was liberating.

Sahir’s work also offers us another lens. Last summer, at a nondescript station in an unfamiliar city, I got off a train having bid farewell to a dear friend, a woman I loved, heart heavy with the knowledge that we would never be together. Among other things, circumstance and distance had done their work. A leaden sky, pregnant with rain, greeted me outside the station. Walking past an Indian curio store, adorned with garish saris and tawdry trinkets, I heard a familiar tune. The sound of a man singing in a despondent tone, as if wracked with pain. “Isko hi jeena kehte hain to yunhi ji lenge /  Uff na karenge lab see lenge aansoo pee lenge (If this is what you call living, then I will live thus / Without a sigh and with sealed lips, I will drink my tears).” Guru Dutt’s lament elicited a wan smile, and as I turned the corner and the city swallowed me up, the voice faded dreamily into the distance. Yet, my thoughts had turned towards Sahir Ludhianvi and I found myself thinking about another scrap of poetry that he penned.

“Mujhe apni tabahiyon ka koi gham nahin / Tumne kisi se muhabbat nibaah toh dee (I’m not sad over my ruin / I’m happy that finally you found someone worth loving).”

Therein lies the lesson that Sahir and Amrita’s tale has for us. Amid his own sadness, Sahir retains the ability to hope for Amrita’s continued happiness. There is a sense of pragmatism here, a sentiment that also emerges in other places in his writings.

“Woh afsana jise takmeel tak laana na ho mumkin / Use ek khoobsurat mod dekar chhodna achha (If it is not possible for a tale to reach its logical end / It is advisable to give it a pleasant turn and let go).”

This representation might be more in tune with what love is: an act, an intentional decision that we make. It recognises the existence of multiple parallel and perhaps equally fruitful realities. Sahir and Amrita’s tale encompassed euphoria, misery, and everything in between. Yet, when the vagaries of life drew them apart, they chose to craft an alternative reality with another, and wished each other to thrive despite periods of despair. Ultimately, their love was not grasping, it was liberating. This idea is the legacy of Sahir and Amrita’s love story; an idea that Bollywood and the music it spawns would do well to communicate.

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